Foundations: No.80 Spring 2021
Pastors and their critics: A guide to coping with criticism in ministry
Joel R. Beeke and Nick Thompson, P&R, 192pp, £9.11 (Amazon)
I have no crystal ball but I would hazard a guess that the next few years would be a really good time for individual pastors and their leadership teams to reflect deeply on how they handle, respond to, and give, criticism, both from within and without their local congregation. The challenges of rebuilding congregations after lockdown, of how to respond to high level cases of pastoral abuse, the way that gospel people seem divided on how to respond to the social issues of our time – all of these have the effect of putting pastors in the line of fire when it comes to criticism. Even without those challenges, sooner or later, a pastor will find (horror of horrors!) not everybody thinks everything he does is brilliant all of the time. If the Apostle Paul was not above having his motives and methods questioned (see 2 Corinthians to start), how much less is the ordinary pastor, even if our congregations are largely sympathetic and supportive?
The truth is, faithful gospel ministry will inevitably bring us into contact with criticism, whether deserved or not. By God’s grace, criticism can be a doorway to further gospel growth, in our own lives and in the churches we serve. We need to be prepared, or perhaps to relearn, how we deal with it and how we respond well. To this end, Joel Beeke and Nick Thompson have helped us enormously with this book.
Having set out what they see as a largely unaddressed problem in the introduction, they say “we are not aware of a book that deals comprehensively with the various dimensions of criticism in the Christian ministry from a biblical and Reformed position” (14). This is what they are hoping to address in this book. It is not overlong, and can be read helpfully in the rough and tumble of church life. It is divided into four sections, looking at the biblical foundations for coping with criticism, practical principles for responding individually, practical principles for fostering a healthy culture of criticism in the church, and a theological vision for responding well. The book ends with a helpful appendix on how those training for ministry might prepare themselves in advance for facing criticism.
I really like this book. In fact it is a book on criticism in which I cannot find anything to criticise! What hooked me from the start was the opening assertion that the first target of unjust criticism in the Bible is God! From there I found the biblical examples, personal recollections from Beeke’s ministry, and the many quotes from historical and recent works of pastoral theology very helpful. I like the combination of a more experienced and a younger author; they are both thoroughly centred on Christ, full of grace, supportive of pastors but do not consider them to be somehow above the local congregation. They have a high view of the importance of personal holiness, and the book drips with the good effect of meditating on Scripture. You will be left with constructive, practical ways of engaging with criticism, wisdom on when not to engage with it, and be given the humbling but helpful insight that there is more to be learnt from criticism than we might wish to admit.
The book is very helpful in leading us away from going over situations where we might have been criticised, to thinking instead about the actual needs of the people we serve. For me, the standout sentence was: ‘The priority of our praying should be souls, not situations”. For encouraging humble and persevering service in both seasoned and starting pastors, this book is highly recommended.
Pastor, Capel Fron Evangelical Church, Penrhydeudraeth.